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“Koryo-Saram”: Life of Korean Community in Tajikistan

The community of Soviet Koreans, or Koryo-saram, numbered about 14 thousand people in the 1990s. Now, Korean community includes up to one thousand people. CABAR.asia tells about their lives in Tajikistan.

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The history of Koreans in Tajikistan dates back to the 1950s, when they migrated here from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Koreans settled in those Central Asian countries in 1937 after their deportation from the Far East.

Victor Kim. Photo: CABAR.asia
Victor Kim. Photo: CABAR.asia

According to Viktor Kim, the Chairman of the Association of Soviet Koreans of Tajikistan, this happened after the deterioration of relations with Japan, so that Japanese intelligence services did not use the Koreans for their purposes. Consequently, 172 thousand Koreans were urgently deported from the Far East.

Most migrants settled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The resettlement conditions were very difficult; some people died in the steppes unable to survive under harsh conditions. Koreans began to settle down in these two republics and until 1954 had no right to leave their new places of residence.

“After Stalin’s death, this ban was lifted and in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Koreans began to move to other republics searching for better life. Thus, some of them ended up in Tajikistan,” says Victor Kim.

Although, there are people in the Korean community who came here before the mass migration. They were graduates of central universities, young specialists arriving here mainly from Moscow and Leningrad. They have contributed to the development of almost all economic sectors, medicine, science and education.

One of them, Thia Dong Lee, (who went by the name Roman Alexandrovich in Russian style during Soviet times), stood at the origins of the Tajik Technical University (TTU). His son, Igor Lee, also made a huge contribution to the education of scientific and technological community in Tajikistan. According to the TTU professors, thanks largely to Igor Lee, in the late 1970s, a new faculty was founded at the Tajik Polytechnic Institute – Automated Control Systems (ACS), which many engineering experts graduated from. This faculty was the only one in Central Asia.

Thia Dong Lee (right in the front row) at a celebration at the Polytechnic Institute. Photo from Igor Lee’s personal files
Thia Dong Lee (right in the front row) at a celebration at the Polytechnic Institute. Photo from Igor Lee’s personal files

Other well-known representatives of the Korean community: Natalia Khvan, the Chief Doctor of the Republican Maternity Hospital; Alexander Pak, Head of the Dushanbe City Electric Supply Company; Nikolay Lee, Head of the investigation division of the General Prosecutor Office; his brother Taisung Lee, director of the Tajikhydroagregat plant; Vladimir Shin, Chairman of the Standardization Committee; Nina Pak, founder and chief editor of one of the first private newspapers, “Business and Politics”.

Igor Lee. Photo: CABAR.asia
Igor Lee. Photo: CABAR.asia

In the early 1960s, in the Farkhor district of Tajikistan, the first Korean settlers organized Surkhob rice-growing farm. Its Chairman, Peter Grigorievich Kim, for the first time in the republic applied the double cropping technology: in the fall, he planted winter wheat, in the early spring he harvested it and immediately sowed rice. He also became the first rice grower in Tajikistan. Local farmers followed the Korean example.

Koreans, to make a living, continued to work tirelessly, on a rotational team method, which is called “kobongji” in Korean; the whole families traveled to other Soviet Union republics to grow onions and melons and, having sold the crop, returned home. In fact, they turned out to be agents of a market economy under Soviet socialism.

Now, the only Korean woman lives in Farkhor village – Larisa Pak, 65, who married an ethnic Uzbek and converted to Islam. She integrated in the local community and only her last name remained from her past.

Mass Migration

According to the 1989 population census, the Korean community in Tajikistan included 14,300 people (about 7,000 Koreans lived in Dushanbe only). However, during the last census in 2010, only 650 people identified themselves as Koreans. However, Victor Kim believes that the number of people with Korean heritage in Tajikistan exceeds 1000.

The exodus of Koreans, just like many other national minorities in Tajikistan, occurred in the early 1990s, during the civil war. Previously, so-called “Korean village” was located in Dushanbe, in the “Perviy Sovetski” (“First Soviet”) district, where mainly Koreans lived. During those years, the Korean community’s newspaper Koryo Ilbo was being published in more than one thousand copies.

In 1992, at the request of Korean entrepreneurs, director Mairam Yusupova shot the documentary “Koryo-saram”, which tells about the mass migration of Korean refugees from the country.

A scene from “Koryo-saram” movie. From Vladimir Kim’s personal files.
A scene from “Koryo-saram” movie. From Vladimir Kim’s personal files.

“Koryo-saram” literally means “Korean person”. This means that the local Korean does not come from South or North Korea (not the Joseon-saram or the Hanguk-saram), but from the tribe that appeared in the Far East and then resettled to Central Asia – Koryo-saram.

“This community developed in isolation and became new sub-ethnic community of the Korean ethnic group, which over the course of a long historical period has made a definite contribution to the development of the country of residence,” said political analyst Sim Hong Yong from Korea.

Vitaly Vladimirovich Shin, a graduate of the Bauman State Technical University, is among those who stayed in Tajikistan. He is the professor at the Tajik Technical University, and in the past, a person who has brought innovative changes to the key sectors of the Tajik economy. For example, the billing system for the Dushanbe city telephone network, which allowed automating the control system; freight wagons tracking via software, which saved money for the country’s railway administration; the country’s first “Visa” international payment card in “Tojiksodirotbank”: these are Shin’s achievements.

Vladimir Shin. Photo: CABAR.asia
Vladimir Shin. Photo: CABAR.asia

The South Korean authorities recognized “Koryo-saram” as compatriots and provided some benefits for them. In particular, according to the law, Soviet Koreans can live and work in Korea for 5 years visa-free. According to Victor Kim, the Koreans from Tajikistan were able to move to South Korea with their families due to this.

“Other young Koreans are leaving for Russia, to the Russian-speaking environment, because it is difficult to get an official job. Meanwhile, many young people who speak Tajik well, have friends here and are not going to leave anywhere,” says Korean community’s leader.

Few of the “Koryo-saram” now speak their native language, because elders taught them only verbally. By the way, the Soviet Koreans’ language was formed on the basis of the Northeastern, so-called Hamgyong dialect of North Korea.

Koreans used to adhere to the traditional religions of their historical homeland: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Nevertheless, the Russians managed to instill Orthodoxy, sometimes even by force. Although, according to Victor Kim, their grandfathers voluntarily converted to Orthodoxy. The middle generation of Soviet Koreans who were born in the USSR are mostly atheists. In the 1990s, when the first South Korean Protestant missionaries appeared in Tajikistan and the Sunmin Sunbogym Church opened its doors, some Koreans joined it.

Tajik students celebrate the National Day of Republic of Korea in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia
Tajik students celebrate the National Day of Republic of Korea in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia

Tajikistan, in accordance with international norms and conventions on ensuring the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, has undertaken to provide representatives of national minorities with free cultural expression, preservation and development of their culture in every aspect.

“Representatives of national minorities in Tajikistan also cannot be denied the right to use their culture, practice their religion and use their native language together with other members of the same group,” said Tajik researcher Imomiddin Rajabov.

Tajik Koreans honor traditions. According to the community’s representatives, Koreans have three main holidays, which are mandatory for everyone. This is April 5, the Parents’ Day, when children visit the graves of their ancestors to perform Jesa – the ceremony to express their respect and love for the deceased.

Another very important celebration is Dol – the first birthday of a child. On a low table (kuduri), various objects are placed in front of a child. It is believed that the object which baby chooses first will define his destiny and occupation. Relatives present the gifts of money to the child after the ritual. Finally, the third obligatory holiday is Hwangap, the celebration of the parent’s 60th birthday.

“This is a very important celebration, because previously, due to different circumstances, people rarely lived to their sixtieth birthday. It is customary that the children arrange a celebration for the hero of the day,” explains Vitaly Shin.

It is noticeable that woman takes an important place in a traditional Korean family. She organizes patterns of family life, which pass down through the generations.

“Korean Carrots” Which Are Not Even Known in Korea

In the new living conditions, due to the lack of certain ingredients, Koreans’ traditional cuisine has changed. As a result, dishes and salads appeared which are not known in Korea. For example, carrot salad “morkovcha”, which was invented by the Central Asian Koreans for the sake of saving money and affordability.

Previously, Korean women selling spicy salads could be seen at each market. Now, Tajiks have taken their places, because, according to a source, the market dictates its own unspoken terms: the rent is higher for Koreans than for the dominant ethnic group. However, this problem concerns not only ethnic Koreans, but also other minorities. In addition, cooking Korean salads is laborious, and accordingly, the price is higher; ordinary people prefer to buy Tajik fakes, because they are cheaper.

Korean women at the Mehrgon market in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia
Korean women at the Mehrgon market in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia

After leaving the private street business, Korean youth now took a completely different position: they usually work as administrators, programming specialists or managers in private and international companies. For example, Victor Kan is Deputy Head of the National Taekwondo Federation of the Republic of Tajikistan, Ksenia Kim is HR department Head at the Coca-Cola company in Tajikistan, Vladimir Kim and his wife Lyudmila An own Kaya restaurant.

Guksu is a popular Korean dish. Photo: CABAR.asia.
Guksu is a popular Korean dish. Photo: CABAR.asia.

As for Russian names and Korean last names, traditionally, the last name plays an important role in the life of Koreans; it defines the generation. Koreans began to give Russian names to their kids after obtaining Russian citizenship, because their own names were difficult to pronounce.

“No variation of the Korean last name is acceptable. The name and middle name can be changed in Russian style, but the last name is above all, because it determines the generation. In addition, the last names may sound the same, but the generations may be different,” explains Victor Kim.

For Koreans, as well as for Tajiks, respect for elders, love and care for relatives and kind relations with neighbors are significant. Meanwhile, they are cautious: they are discreet in their speech and selective in judgments and relations.

According to the community’s leader, nowadays you cannot advertise yourself.

“We are not stupid, it is important for us not to advertise ourselves. Modesty is a good quality when you live in another country,” he said.

“When I am in Tajikistan, I am Korean. Outside Tajikistan, I identify myself as Tajik. If you live in this country, you need to love it and be a patriot; if there is no love, then why live here?” Kim argues philosophically.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia».

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